There is a majestic calm upon descending into Seoul, or perhaps it was the time of day that our plane touched down; very early morning. The sky was slightly overcast, covered in haze as though slowly awakening from a long and deep slumber. In the distance, the silhouette of several mountains dotted the landscape likening it to a scene out of “The Last Samurai”. It was utterly magical. This was our first foray into Northern Asia and we had a very good feeling about it even before exiting the airport. In hindsight I’m thrilled to say that our intuition was spot on but for different reasons. If I had to summarize Seoul in one word, it would be “unpredictable” because this city surprised us in many ways.
We were expecting to see a mad and chaotic urban jungle; Tokyo’s twin sister, if you will. Almost an exaggeration of NYC’s Time Square. What we got instead was a calm, slow-paced environ where (very) well-dressed men and women go about their daily lives as if without a worry on their minds. This of-course is a superficial assessment because anyone who does business in Korea is privy to the madness that occurs behind closed doors. But I was happy not to be a part of corporate Seoul. And I was utterly content with the sleepy rhythm of this up and coming city that is clearly leading on every front: fashion, electronics, cars, you name it. South Korea is a rising pioneer, ferociously challenging its neighbors, China and Japan, and with a lot of pride. There is an air of sophistication about everything here. People dress very well. They speak calmly and politely. They are gracious and very respectable. Roads are clean. Actually, they are spotless. Road signs are practical and simple to navigate. Metros are orderly and shockingly quiet. There is no shoving, no pushing, no loud voices. It was wonderful and a sharp contrast to other experiences we had had in Southeast Asia. I even found myself comparing our metro experience in Seoul to that in Paris, which is leaps and bounds apart like an underground zoo. And I say this with a lot of love for my city of love & lights. With double the population of Paris squeezed into its admittedly mammoth 605km2 frame, this was impressive to say the very least.
Seoul, we found, has everything to offer. History, culture, architecture, entertainment, greenery, shopping, dining, authenticity. We did so much in 6 days, I had difficulty recapping it while writing this guide. The diversity offered in Seoul is impressive and I can assure you we barely scratched the surface. But what scratching we did, was absolutely rewarding. We also loved how relatively low-rise the city appeared. High-rise buildings seem to be concentrated in specific areas, especially in the southern half of the city, and the hilly landscape in certain parts makes for a dramatic skyline and a beautiful erratic display of buildings and hills, like a screenshot from a hospital electrocardiograph or the fluorescent green plains of a Playstation game.
With over 10 million inhabitants in tow, Seoul is huge and very well-developed. The Han River runs through the city dividing it into “North of the Han” and “South of the Han”. The North is definitely the more beautiful and bubbly half. There is a definite change in scenery when you cross the river South. I found the landscape became more drab as we moved South. Buildings were less beautiful, signs less colorful, the landscape suddenly more homogenous. But always always civilized and quiet. The only time we experienced a surge of loud voices and what felt like an explosion of people was on Saturday night in the bubbly district called Itaewon. Apart from that, life trots about at an easy pace, oblivious to the pressures around it, or so it felt to us. That said, Itaewon on a Saturday night is a must-do!
We expected to be completely lost in translation and while a large part of the population does not speak English, we did not suffer nearly as much as we expected to or did in Vietnam. The youth naturally spoke more English and most hotels and restaurants managed well (albeit often difficult to understand). Taxi cabs were probably the hardest bit but even then, it was not impossible. The key we learned was to have a Korean translation of wherever we wanted to go noted down somewhere. That was usually sufficient to get to where we needed to be. Since most maps were in Korean-English, that meant a simple point of a finger on the map was all we needed to do before we were whisked off in our cab with some version of animated Korean pop (K-Pop) or a gentler Korean ballad crooning in the background. That said, the language was impossible to pick up and this is difficult for me to say as I have a knack for picking up languages, at least the essentials while on vacation. It took me a full two days to memorize the Korean word for “thank-you”: Kamsahamnida. Yes. It’s long. Yes, it’s complicated. Say it again, slowly now. Kam-sa-ham-ni-da. This lengthy word was full of promise and gained us smiles and nods for effort wherever we dropped it. This word was the start and the end of all our efforts. Fullstop.
We regretted not being able to experience a local concert as K-Pop is so big here and popular across Asia! We also hoped the now-famous “Gangnam Style” song would come to life in some way, shape or form animating a simple road-crossing or something with some crazy dance moves! Lol That was of-course a far-fetched whim but you can always dream! For those who don’t know it, Gangnam is actually the name of a neighborhood in Seoul that sits south of the Han River. And “Gangnam Style” refers to a lifestyle associated with that neighborhood. We learned that people from Gangnam will never announce their origins. It’s only the attention seekers and image-obsessed who will do that so this song essentially pokes fun at those people who try very hard to be something they’re not. The singer (Psy), now a global sensation, originates from Gangnam. His world-renowned K-Pop single refers to the perfect girlfriend who knows when to be refined and when to get wild. Ha! “Oppan Gangnam Style”, which is the phrase most English-speakers remember from the song means “big brother is Gangnam style”, where Psy, apparently refers to himself. This crazyyy song apparently became the first You Tube video to reach a billion views! Since then, it has well surpassed that figure and is still widely recognized and appreciated for its catchy lyrics and (what I believe is a) hilarious choreography! haha Hopefully for our next visit!!
During our time there we met up with a few friends in Seoul who were there as expats assigned to the massive Korean conglomerate, Samsung, and we were extremely inspired by their new way of life and nuances to the culture. Talk about a culture shock! For us coming from Paris, moving to Singapore was a breeze. One of these Samsung gentlemen spoke impressively well, it blew us away every time! We hiked, we biked, we shopped, we explored and we ate sooo well. I personally fell in love with Korean BBQ although 4 days of red meat in a row was starting to make my conscience feel a little guilty. We also ate fresh seafood bought fresh from the Noryangjin fish market that by the way is open 24/7!! I can’t wait to do that again! What a crazy fun experience!
It was a very special trip and we even found ourselves contemplating the thought of being expatriated there for a year or two, imagining which neighborhood we would love to live in, where we would shop and how our life would look. Not unimaginable I will confirm. Which is, I suppose, always a positive sign of a place. Seoul is a definite must-do in our eyes! That city whet our appetite for more of what South Korea has to offer. Hopefully soon… for more details on what to do, where to eat and general tips, scroll down!
Oppan Gangnam style!
Recommended hotel: IP Boutique Hotel
Set in Itaewon – which we believed to be the coolest district – the word “eclectic” best describes this property. Funky art installations mark the outside of the somewhat Stark-esque property whose facade stands tall and colorful. Green swings hang from the high ceiling of the lobby inviting you to be a child. Stay away from the buffet breakfast. It looks deceivingly good but is not worth the $20. Lovely minimalistic clean rooms all decked in white with fun art murals that differ from room to room. Excellent location!
Recommended itinerary: This list is certainly not comprehensive but outlines what we did. We spent 6 days which was a good amount of time but we certainly didn’t cover everything and would have loved to further explore outside Seoul.
- Seoul Tower & Namsan Park – the tower is set at the very top of the park so you can hot two birds with one stone. Take a bus all the way up or hike it like a true trooper as we did. Start at the base of the park and make your way up, about 1.5hrs for a wonderful reward. The views from the top are beautiful and confirm the hilly beauty of this green city. Lots of fun boutiques and food shops will keep you entertained and help you catch your breath at the top!
- Bukchon Hanok Village – wander about this beautiful enclave of restored Hanok houses (traditional houses) to see the old but fast disappearing Seoul. Start at the Bukchon Cultural Center and grab a map for a detailed route
- Gyeongbokgung – a beautiful, vast and majestic palace. Surrounded by mountains you forget that the bustle of cars is just outside the palace gates. Open courtyards, pagoda rooftops, lakes and lots of walking. Prepare for the sunshine if you visit in the summer
- Changdeokgung – the highlight of this palace is Huwon, the secret garden. I’m very sad to say we didn’t have time to see this but I regret it as the gardens are apparently something else. If you have time for only one palace, start with this one. No doubt.
- Namdaemun Market – a very local massive market selling everything under the sun! A wonderful local frenzy of shopping and exchanging and a very colorful backdrop for photos at least!
- War Memorial Museum – free entry to a very comprehensive and well-done look back at the wars that have touched SOuth Korea. The gardens are lined with tankers, fighter jets and even a scary B15! My hubby stood near the wheels for a photo and even is 190cm height was dwarfed by the wheels alone! I would not like to be caught under that!
- Leeum Samsung Museum of Art – A beautiful trio of 3 artsy buildings tucked on a hilltop on a backstreet of Itaewon. One building houses ancient Korean art, another houses modern local and global art and a third is used for exhibitions. A great way to spend a morning.
- Cycle by the Han River – one of the highlights of our trip. A 2.5hr cycle around the Han River and we only did 20km! It is long but incredibly scenic and a well done route. Enjoyable but sporty, be prepared!
- Dongdaemun – shopping mania in the form os massive multi-storey “Doota” and the Dongdaemun Shopping Complex. Don’t miss the DDP, renowned architect Zaha Hadid’s architectural masterpiece.
- Noryangjin Fishmarket – another highlight. Open 24/7 this fish market is absolutely massive. Buy anything your heart fancies, wriggling and live, take it to the restaurant upstairs where they will prepare and cook it for you. Don’t ask for a style of cooking. You don’t have a choice. They know best! lol
- Insa-Dong – “Disney on kimchi”. An incredible street of nifty boutiques, museums and eateries. Indulge your eyes and your palette. An absolute must do!
- Samcheong-Dong – just east of the palace (Gyeongbokgung) is a lovely area of galleries, fashion and cafes. A wonderful stroll.
- Garosu-Gil – Vogue village. A gorgeous ginko-tree lined strip of Korean and global fashion labels. Original, funky, hip, awesome! Some excellent food options here as well. Loved this!
- Itaewon-Dong – once a tacky street in the middle of ‘expat land’ this neighborhood is in the midst of a massive renaissance with a growing number of eateries, clubs and bars. A happening place on Saturday evenings and an enjoyable walk.
Recommended restaurants: We LOVE to eat well as evident through the identity of this blog! Our selection below includes a mix of local flavors and western eats that were well ranked in the city and that we know you’ll enjoy:
- Between – a beautiful space decked with floor to ceiling glass windows and comfy seats. Delicious western menus with a complementary salad bar for main courses chosen from the menu. Simple, quality ingredients, luxury standards at affordable lunchtime rates
- Maple Tree House – amazing decor bringing the outdoors in. The best Korean BBQ we had in Seoul! Delicious beef options complete with your own little BBQ plate and chimney to suck away the smoke. A complementary array of sides is served with your main, excellent food and a fun and memorable experience! Sadly, I cant recall the names of the other Korean BBQ restaurants but your concierge will certainly help
- Paris Croissant – one of the most beautiful bakery’s/patisseries I have ever seen. The interiors, the packaging, the selection, the pastries…swoon. Makes me want to open my own bakery right now! Perfect for an afternoon snack or breakfast.
- The Restaurant Cafe – pastries, chocolates, panini’s, salads. A great lunch option in an artsy space
- Noryangjin Fishmarket – don’t expect luxury. Buy your fish in the fish market downstairs and head upstairs to devour. Shoes off. Sit on the floor and dig in! A true Korean experience!
- All That Jazz – a fun jazz bar in Itaewon. A fun and relaxed way to spend an evening post or pre dinner.
- Vatos – BEST. MEXICAN. EVER! Combined with some local flavors for an explosive Mexican-fusion. We were licking our fingers to preserve the taste!
- Have your hotel business card or address (in Korean) on you at all times. Language can be an issue and your driver will not be able to understand or read your English characters.
- Exchange money in advance. The currency is the Korean Won. As a general rule of thumb, 10,000 Won = $10!
- Some restaurants and temples may require shoes off so be prepared with socks if you are easily grossed out (like me!)
- Choose the time of year you plan to visit wisely as they get four seasons and winter months can be very cruel
- Try Korean BBQ and Kimchi (pickles) at least once. What an awesome experience and the most tender beef I have ever eaten!
- Don’t be wooed by plastic surgery in this Plastic Surgery Land